“There is no asylum-seeker problem in Israel – they are illegal job immigrants,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel has the right to protect its borders. “We don’t have to open our doors to be swamped by the way other people run their economies."
Above: Benjamin Netanyahu (file photo)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in New York City to leaders of North American Jewish Federations last week.
He took questions, and one questioner asked Netanyahu whether he was worried that Israel’s illegal imprisonment of African asylum seekers would hurt Israel’s international image.
According to Ha’aretz, Netanyahu lashed out at the questioner and lectured him.
“There is no asylum-seeker problem in Israel – they are illegal job immigrants,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel has the right to protect its borders. “We don’t have to open our doors to be swamped by the way other people run their economies,” the Israeli leader said.
But the facts show that Netanyahu is lying.
Almost all of these Africans legally qualify as refugees and are seeking asylum. They do not have legal refugee status because Netanyahu and his cronies refuse to follow the international agreements Israel has signed or Israel High Court of Justice rulings.
But even more than that, hardly any African asylum seekers have made it into Israel since Israel built its southern border fence about two years ago – a fence that was built to stop Arab terrorism, but had the side benefit for Netanyahu and his allies of excluding poor, desperate people fleeing oppression, war and starvation. In fact, according to Ha’aretz, only several dozen Africans asylum seekers have entered Israel since then.
So why is Netanyahu defying and evading High Court rulings, violating international law and treating Israel’s 50,000 African asylum seekers like dirt?
According to Ha’aretz's Anshel Pfeffer, he’s playing to his racist base:
…Netanyahu doesn’t actually believe we are about to be swamped by a massive wave of African job-seekers. He has simply made a political choice. There are too many Israelis who feel threatened by the thousands of black men loitering around south Tel Aviv and want to believe that the government is about to kick them out; conversely, not enough Israelis are demanding a humane solution for the asylum seekers, who cannot be repatriated to their repressive homelands and are now forced into a life of extreme poverty, illegal work and crime.
Netanyahu also knows he won’t have to pay a political price, because the small number of Israelis who do care for the migrants will not be voting for him anyway. But the way in which this issue has fallen so neatly into the convenient old right-left dichotomy is a failure of the relatively small camp of left-wing politicians and human rights organizations.
This should never have had anything to do with politics or where one stands on the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This isn’t about solving an existential struggle between two nations that are both to blame for the lack of peace – it is about human and Jewish values, and trying to build a better society.
By making the plight of the migrants yet another fashionable cause of the left, they have enforced the not-implausible notion that it is very easy for middle-class Haaretz readers to support allowing them to stay, since they don’t live in their neighborhoods anyway. And by choosing the legalistic avenue of High Court petitions to fight the laws allowing the migrants’ incarceration, they have further strengthened those who argue that a self-electing, elitist group of judges has no business striking down the legislation of a democratic parliament.
Above all, by making this yet another secular crusade of the left, they have missed the opportunity of building a unique human rights coalition that spans the political divide, and allows for the inclusion of basic Jewish values along with universal ones. And what could have been more simple than building consensus around the biblical injunction not to oppress a foreigner, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt”?
This should be a particular issue for Diaspora Jews. Not because they have a duty to reform Israel or to save it from itself – Israel doesn’t need saving, and only its own citizens should be reforming it – but because the great majority of Jews today are themselves descended from immigrants, fortunate to have made their lives in societies that allowed them to succeed and become equal citizens, and in many cases now are turning against less fortunate immigrants arriving at their shores. Anti-immigrant parties and policies are gaining ground today in many countries with significant Jewish communities, and we have a duty to honor our parents and grandparents by speaking out against them.
A generation ago, this would not have needed to be said. Memories of life as Holocaust refugees in DP (displaced persons) camps in Europe, or of a million Jews being forced to leave Arab countries, were still fresh in every family. But while in the last decades of the previous century the Diaspora led the campaign to free Soviet Jews, and more recently American-Jewish organizations lobbied the Israeli government to bring the Falashmura from Ethiopia (despite the opposition of most experts and of many within the Jewish Ethiopian community who regarded them as descendants of renegades who had converted to Christianity over a century ago), our duty toward non-Jewish immigrants and refugees has been forgotten in many quarters.
In Britain and France today, to our shame, we actually have Jews openly supporting parties whose raison d’être is to prevent the immigration of those seeking to lead a safe and productive life in the West, just as their grandparents did not so long ago. Diaspora Jews, therefore, have a special role in putting this value back into the heart of Jewish discourse.
It was no coincidence that an American – not an Israeli Jew – tried to press Netanyahu on this on the eve of Yom Kippur. But the question should have been worded differently. It is not about damaging Israel’s image. If we had treated the migrants in an exemplary fashion, those who hate Israel would have found something else to feed their malevolence. Netanyahu should be asked, and we should ask ourselves, why we have forsaken a core Jewish value, one that should be at the center of the Jewish state as well.
Pfeffer is wrong to blame the left.
The fact is that the right joined with haredim and many Zionist Orthodox rabbis to inflame racism and persecute these African asylum seekers many of whom were left homeless and destitute as a result.
Israel trapped them in a horrific no man's land of poverty and enforced joblessness, where exploitation and abuse from their illegal Israeli employers only furthered the need for these desperate people to steal in order to survive.
There has never been a prime minister of Israel who less embodies Jewish values than Netanyahu. But sadly, right of center, center and Orthodox Israelis just don't seem to care.
But what Pfeffer does not realize is that American Jewish leaders don't care, either.
These African asylum seekers aren't Jews, some are Muslim, and all are black. And that trifecta trumps Judaism and Jewish values every time.